Denfeld News

Jan. 25, 2010
Duluth News Tribune

Brothers make their own winter camping gear
By Sam Cook

STURGEON LAKE — It’s pretty much Jonathan’s fault. He was the one who had to go and buy a canvas tent for winter camping six years ago.

That’s the way his brothers, Brian and Michael Maruska of Sturgeon Lake, explain it.

They say that’s why the three brothers now design, stitch, hammer and rivet nearly everything they need for winter travel — and winter living.

Canvas tents. Yurts. Woodstoves. Pulks. Komatik sledges. Camp chairs. Camp beds.

From scratch. Using materials they acquire mostly at Menards.

“It started as a hobby,” says Brian Maruska, 30. “Then it became an obsession. Now it’s a disease.”

On a recent weekday, Brian and Michael exhibit their winter wares at the Duluth Area Family YMCA’s Camp Miller near Sturgeon Lake where they both volunteer. Brian’s wife, Bridgit Maruska, is director of Camp Miller.

Woodsmoke rises from a spacious yurt beneath the pines. Down the shore, Brian, an electrician by trade, has erected his winter camping tent, complete with the woodstove he built for it. Just down the trail, Michael, 23, shows off the yurt where he’s living this winter.

Jonathan, 27, an engineer technician in Superior, is not around, but his brothers display the six-sided “tentagon” he uses for winter camping.

While he was attending the University of Minnesota Duluth, Jonathan and two friends lived in a canvas tent from January to May of 2003.

“What I liked was the simplicity,” says Jonathan, who lives in Duluth. “You knew how everything worked: Where your water came from. You hauled it in. Your wood, your heat. It brought life down to the essentials. At the same time, it was a very comfortable way to live.”

Part romantics, part craftsmen, the Maruskas relish the time they spend under canvas each winter.

“It’s so many things for us,” says Michael, 23. “It’s the creativity of building it, to make it the best, lightest, most durable. And it’s also being out in the woods, in a tent, with the candles, burning wood, talking about things that matter, eating good food, being with people that matter.”

Saving money

Once Jonathan had introduced his brothers to winter tenting, they saw the beauty of winter travel with canvas shelter and woodstove heat. But they found the prices of those tents and lightweight woodstoves daunting. Growing up in West Duluth, they had learned to use tools watching their dad.

They found 8-ounce canvas drop-cloths at Menards. They started sewing.
The first yurt Michael made is 12½ feet in diameter with an 8-foot peak. He learned yurt-making from Mark Hansen of Grand Marais, who founded the North House Folk School and still teaches there.

That yurt now sits on the lake shore at Camp Miller, and guests at the camp can rent it for winter weekends. The yurt’s woodstove purrs, throwing ample heat across the round room. Wood-heated tents are just as comfortable, Brian says.

“The number one question people ask — they all imagine you’re freezing your butt off,” he says. “I say, ‘How hot do you want it?’ I had one of those little Coleman thermometers at the top of the tent one night. I blew the top off it.”

The Maruska brothers winter camp every year, in or out of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Canvas cabin

When Brian really wants to get into his element, he doesn’t have to go too far north. He has a 10-foot-by-12-foot “canvas cabin” on private land north of Duluth. He spent part of Minnesota’s firearms deer season hunting from the shelter. It has four bunks and a kitchen area.

“The idea came to me in my sleep one night,” Brian says.

Lots of ideas come to Brian and his brothers, asleep or awake. They are constantly refining, improving or inventing gear. They’ve attended the past five Winterer’s Gatherings held at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, swapping ideas and comparing gear with Hansen and others.

“These guys are really home builders,” Hansen says. “They know how to make things. They have some serious gifts in that regard. I’m really impressed with them. They think things through.”

In addition to sometimes living under canvas, the Maruskas find time for occasional trips to the woods for camping. Michael was in the BWCAW a couple of weeks ago. Last winter, they made a 24-mile trip on Basswood Lake near Ely. The brothers plan to take their dad winter camping this winter.

As Jonathan says, life gets simple out there in the winter woods. Simple and quiet and warm. The woodstove seems central to the experience.

“Burning wood,” Brian says, pointing to the woodstove in Michael’s yurt.

“In winter, most people are sitting in their houses turning up their thermostats and watching television. This is better than television, even though the same thing is on every night.”

Maruska brothers’ winter gear innovations

The Maruska brothers do a lot of modifying, improving and inventing of winter gear. Among their craftier designs:

• A combination bungee-and-nylon-webbing towing system for pulks (sleds) that absorbs shock and is more forgiving to the person pulling.

• An 8-foot pulk from high-density plastic with wooden sides, slightly curved on the bottom for maneuverability.

• A komatik sledge designed to be pulled from the front and pushed from the back simultaneously. It doubles as a storage area and bed in camp.

• Portable woodstoves made from sheet metal ductwork; cost is about $50 each, and they weigh less than 20 pounds.

• Magnetic latches on stove doors, which eliminate handling hot latches.

• “Bucket” woodstoves, made from a pair of metal buckets.

• Two-layer roofs on canvas tents with a layer of fleece insulation between.

• Canvas pyramid-style fishing shelters with woodstove heat.

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